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Record bridge threatens Japan's emerald isle

LONG after the industrial blight which spread over Japan during the economic miracle, Shikoku, smallest of the four main islands, has remained a charming, tranquil place. Thatched wooden farm houses were still built in the traditional way and Buddhists in white robes and straw hats still made the pilgrimage around the 88 temples. But yesterday that era came to an abrupt end.

The occasion was the opening of the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, and proofthat Japan's economy has plenty of puff left. The bridge, started 10 years ago, is superlative in every respect. It has been built to withstand 180mph winds and earthquakes as big as 8.5 on the Richter scale. When nearby Kobe was struck by an earthquake three years ago, the foundations were not damaged. More than two million people have worked on it and the distance between its two massive towers is 6,750ft - 2,000ft longer than the Humber estuary bridge. The total cost was about $3.7bn (pounds 2.3bn).

Another bridge already links Shikoku to the main island of Honshu and a third farther west, will open next year. But the point about Akashi Kaikyo is that it connects the island directly with Kansai, the great metropolitan sprawl which fuses Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto.

If Kansai were an independent state, its economy would be bigger than that of Canada; the bridge will cut more than an hour off ferry times to the cities of Shikoku and open them up to mainland businesses. Economists talk enthusiastically of billions of yen of new business for the region every year. But how much of that loot remains in Shikoku remains to be seen.

The bridge will carry visitors, of course, but the charm of Shikoku has been its success in resisting the homogenising effects of mass tourism. Products and services from the mainland will be available more quickly and cheaply to the island's 40 million people. But the price will be a squeeze on small local businesses. The island's town of Sakaide has seen its businesses falter and population drop by 10 per cent since it was joined to the mainland a decade ago by the first bridge. Locals speak of a "revolving door" through which people and money pass but do not stay. Katsuto Uchihashi, a Kobe economist, says: "The law of the economy is that the big and powerful invariably swallow up the small and the weak."